This is the 1st chapter of the book INVASION OF THE VOX LAGOMORPHA by F. Fidelio
1. From Superheroines to Captain Kirk’s Discovery
Bernie stood frowning at her smartphone, maybe this was going to be more complicated than she thought. What she needed was another pair of hands.
She pushed her glasses up into a mass of frizzy blonde hair, which took some effort of shoving and wiggling to overcome the inbuilt resistance.
As if the universe had read her thoughts, the front door then rattled and a voice called indistinctly from the hallway of the small house.
‘In here, Rupi!’ called Bernie, and flopped back on a sofa covered by a dizzyingly purple paisley throw. A cloud of fluff rose.
In the doorway a dark young woman appeared, an exotic vision in pink from nose-stud and headscarf to pantalooned legs. The effect was somewhat spoiled by a bulky but necessary acid green anorak and practical Ugg boots. Rupi was almost as wide as she was tall, and her smile was even wider. But when she saw the prostrate form of her conversely skinny friend she cried softly, ‘Oh, Bernie, what’s up?’
‘Hi Rupi, just the usual chaos, you know. Polly’s in labour in my bedroom. I think it’s going OK. I can’t find anything definite online about how long it should take, though.’
‘Oh?’ said Rupi and dumped her bag by the door.
‘Oh, don’t leave that there, it’ll be in Max’s way and he’ll be cheesed-off and ruin it. You know what he’s like.’
‘Ah!’ said Rupi and speedily retracted her bag.
‘He managed to find and wreck that stupid house-plant my mother brought the last time she visited – which is probably toxic, by the way – and Angus bit me, the sod, so no progress there.’
Rupi came over to the sofa and said, ‘Oh,’ quietly and sympathetically. She deposited her bag a second time and sat down, causing a consequential explosion of slow-motion fluff to rise into the beam of sunshine, slanting through the sitting room window.
‘And, Rupi,’ said Bernie sotto voce, turning to her friend, grabbing her arm dramatically and leaning forward with wide eyes, ‘I’m having problems getting transport for the You Know What, You Know When!’
‘Oh, no!’ murmured Rupi, horrified.
‘Yes, exactly,’ agreed Bernie.
They sat in silence for a while, letting all this momentous news sink in.
‘Anyway,’ said Bernie suddenly brighter, ‘shall I make us a cuppa?’
The pair wandered off into the kitchen through an archway, stepping carefully around a small rabbit the size of a novelty slipper, randomly sleeping in the middle of the room as if someone had dropped an outsized brown and white pebble.
‘How was college today?’ asked Bernie as she wrestled her glasses back into place and set the electric kettle to boil.
‘Good, thanks. Practicals. Injections.’ Rupi shuddered, ‘Emily Hyssop injected right through a kitten’s neck – in one side, out the other!’ She stuck her right finger in one side of her neck and mimicked an explosive event with her left hand.
Both women grimaced.
‘What about you? Work OK?’
Bernie made a face, and emitted a noise equating to ‘Pppfffffff’, then sighed, ‘I suppose it’s my own fault for studying philosophy. I mean, well...you know what I mean.’
Dispiritedly she threw a teabag into a chipped flowery teapot, and pulled two lurid, mismatched mugs from the overhead cupboard. Pouring boiling water into the pot she continued, ‘But it pays the bills, this Customer Service lark, that’s for sure. Without it we wouldn’t have all this grandeur!’ She waved her arms around the small kitchen, unfashionably fitted, tiled, and painted in multiple shades of nauseating brown.
At this point a dog-flap in the back door swung in and a large grey rabbit appeared, stopping for a second to assess the situation.
‘Hello Max,’ said Rupi automatically.
The rabbit blinked, then, ignoring both young women, it hopped into the first of a row of three large rectangular washing-up bowls on the floor next to the washing machine. They were filled with hay. Max transferred himself to the middle bowl where he sat and began nibbling with a Zen-like aura.
Bernie poured two mugs of tea, sloshed milk and sugar into both, then carried them to the small kitchen table. Just as they were both about to sit down, Bernie’s phone rang.
‘Hello, this is Bernadine Bynum,’ she sang – with enviable confidence and professionalism, thought Rupi as she continued to sit.
Bernie was listening hard, ‘Uh-huh, OK. How terrible! Yes, of course, we’ll do our best. Yes. See you soon!’
She waved her hand at Rupi, looking traumatised, ‘Don’t get comfy, we have to go and do a pick-up at the vets around the corner: operated on and owners haven’t collected it, and aren’t going to – the swine. But a good networking opportunity for you!’ she added, suddenly cheerful. ‘I’ll get some shoes and find the spare carrier, Polly’s in the usual one.’
Bernie headed for the hallway via a narrow doorway and shouted over her shoulder, ‘Can you do an ear count and shut up shop? I think you might have to kick Angus inside, and lock the dog-flap. Thanks!’
Rupi got up reluctantly and opened the back-door with care. She stepped out onto the patio which was enclosed by a low fence; in the centre stood a small rusting metal garden table with three chairs of differing pedigrees, and ranged to either side were several large hutches with enclosed runs below. They were empty for now. Bernie never really put rabbits out here if she could help it. They would undoubtedly be full come the Post-Easter Apocalypse and the second ultra-depressing wave of abandonment during the summer holiday Mega-Bunny-Dump.
The garden beyond the patio was not large or decorative; a standard, functional lawn ran back six metres or so, hemmed in on all sides by a dense, shoulder-high hedge. It was spring but nothing bloomed except indefatigable dandelions in the weedy, tussocky and lush grass. Along the hedges stretched a low unbroken line of rabbit mesh, into which new growth was poking and interweaving until it was artfully, if unintentionally, disguised.
Rupi checked the farthest cage from the door and, as anticipated, found Angus lurking inside. Where most rabbits specialised in breaking-out, Angus had mastered breaking-in. Pretty good going for a fellow blind in one eye and carrying an insane amount of deep ginger fur – which stuck out an extra body-width on all sides if it wasn’t clipped into submission on a regular basis.
‘Come on, Angus,’ crooned Rupi opening the door. Swiftly, and with practised control, she lifted the sulky-looking little rabbit into her arms while minimizing opportunity for teeth to meet flesh, ‘Time to come inside.’
She deposited the unimpressed Angus in an unoccupied hay tub, shut and locked the back door, and then proceeded to locate and tally ears.
Bernie met her by the front door, ‘Ear count?’
Rupi gave the thumbs up, ‘Check! Carrier?’
Bernie opened the front-door to reveal a grey-plastic pet carrier on the doorstep, ‘Check.’
Beyond the front garden gate was parked a small battered car of an ancient orange colour. Although lovingly known as The Bunnymobile, its unreliability was legendary and both girls eyed it doubtfully for a second.
‘OK,’ muttered Bernie, grabbing her coat, ‘let’s go and be superheroes.’
* * *
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, far into the rough and hilly landscape beyond, an old man with thinning hair and thickening midriff sat behind a screen in rapt attention.
He sat back.
He sat forward craning his neck closer to the signal on the graph.
He blanched and muttered under his breath, ‘Oh, well, that can’t be right…’
Another equally casually and unfashionably-dressed man – half the age and definitely less than half the weight of the first – entered the poky, grey office, nursing a mug inscribed with, “Area 51”.
‘Alright, Bri? Found any aliens yet?’ he sniggered.
Bri, more formally known as Brian Emsworth, remained staring at the screen, this time with his head slightly to the side as if letting his eyes sneak up on the data crabwise. He ignored his gangly, ginger, fellow-geek, and folded his arms on the expanse of his beer belly while his double-chin trembled slightly.
‘Well, now, Jim lad, it’s funny you should say that,’ he began in laconic northern tones, eyes still glued frontward. ‘Between thee an’ me, I think it might be time for the Blue Folder.’
Jim, who was a new post-graduate employee at the Ramsgill astrophysics monitoring station, looked suspiciously at his colleague and prepared himself for a practical joke. Brian was a retired engineer and filled in night-shifts as a volunteer – technically to watch over the equipment. However, if you’ve been waiting for aliens all your life, find yourself pensioned-off early with a bad back, and the national station for the search for extra terrestrial intelligence is a stones-throw from your home town, you’re bound to take the opportunity to sit in front of any monitors they’ll let you near, and pretend you’re Captain Kirk.
‘What d’you mean?’ Jim parried warily.
‘I mean,’ said Brian talking steadily to his screen, ‘get the blithering Blue File!’
Jim put down his mug on the desk and took the bait. He closed in on the monitor.
Slowly his eyes grew rounder and his mouth dropped open.
‘Blue File?’ queried Brian, softly.
Jim nodded silently, gaping in concert at the computer screen.
Then he stopped nodding, ‘Where is it?’
Brian snapped his head towards Jim, ‘You don’t know?’
‘No! I’ve only been here a week!’
‘But you’re the blinking bone fide university astronomer. Paid!’
There was tangible panic in the room until Brian waved it away with his arms, ‘It’s in the hall on the red shelves.’
‘It’s on the website!’ shouted Jim almost at the same time, and pulled out his phone, then quailed with embarrassment. It was turned off, of course – all mobile devices were, so as not to interfere with any of their equipment. He hung his head in shame and traipsed out into the hall, returning with the analogue version of the Blue File.
The Blue File contained the action protocol: what to do should potential signs of alien life be detected. Mainly this consisted of “keep your mouth shut and consult your next colleague in line, your next colleague in the international organisation, and so on”. By the time you went public you were sure to be sure.
Jim handed the folder to Brian, pulled up the spare wheelie chair and reached for the land-line.
‘We’re sure about this?’ he said, as serious as if he was about to depress a nuclear button.
‘Deadly,’ pronounced Brian, with equal gravitas.
‘I’ll try the Professor, then.’
Jim started to dial a number pinned on the wall by the phone.
‘You do that lad,’ encouraged the older man leaning back in his chair, opening the folder and starting to chuckle, ‘That’ll put the wind right up the stuffy ol’ beggar.’
Colin was a very patient man. A very quiet and healthily introverted individual who loved coffee, not having to shave, and walking around in socks all day.
What he didn’t like was things going wrong. And today things were going wrong. For starters the internet, and then his smartphone. Both of which were crucial issues for a home-working app developer.
What he also didn’t like was making calls to people he didn’t know.
Or making a fuss.
Thus Colin stood in his large but sparsely furnished living room, chewing his thumbnail and living his quandary to the full.
Phone the helpline or…or be stranded in a sea of nothingness and ignorance, losing time and losing money.
He headed for the land-line and had a moment of gratefulness to his past self, who had decided to keep the service within the cable TV package – because you never knew.
He reached out for the receiver of the slightly ancient cordless phone and dialled the number on the internet service provider’s bill. It rang out. In rather hissy reception quality he was warned that his call may be monitored for the good of humankind, then was subjected to five minutes of “Greensleeves” while he paced up and down the room steeling himself to be severe and not take no for an answer.
Finally, there was a click, Greensleeves was mercifully cut off mid-sleeve, and a woman’s voice – a really rather sexy young woman’s voice – asked, ‘Good morning, my name is Bernadine, how may I help you?’
Immediately thrown on a deep, deep, biological level, Colin’s mouth moved as if proceeding with Plan A (offensive and demanding), while nothing came out because his brain was screeching towards the hastily developing-on-the-fly Plan B (Charming and manly).
‘Hi. Um,’ he managed, and cringed physically.
There followed a moment of silent panic.
‘Hello?’ came the warm, friendly question.
‘Yes, hello,’ said Colin decisively and, rolling with the momentum, added, ‘it’s about my internet.’
‘Ah, yes, sir, are you experiencing difficulties?’
Again the warm, friendly sympathy with the sexy undertones…incredible sexy undertones...
‘Er, no!’ he declared slightly defensively, his mind dwelling at that moment in a radically different universe than the one he had lived in two minutes previously.
‘You don’t?’ came the slightly confused response.
‘Um, no...’ repeated Colin cautiously.
‘So you don’t have any internet connection problems?’
‘Oh, that! Yes, yes, I do actually, it’s not working and I run my business from home so that’s pretty bad news actually. As you can imagine...’
‘Ah,’ said the girl, reassuringly back on firm ground. ‘Yes, of course, and I do apologise, sir. Unfortunately, it appears to be outside of E-Green’s control. I can assure you we’re working as hard as possible, and we’re even in touch with the government concerning the matter. Apparently it’s all across the north of the country, so you, and indeed we, are not alone.’
‘Oh,’ replied Colin, surprised, and he paced out into his cavernous hallway.
‘Obviously, without any internet we have limited ways to communicate the latest news, so we’ve set up a dedicated information line where you can phone-in to hear—’
‘Noooooooooooo!’ cried Colin in sudden horror.
The door in front of him across the entrance hall was open, and as he had paced forward in silent dread he heard a noise which triggered him to run in to the room.
A large black rabbit was attached by the teeth to a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Darth Vader, and as Colin entered the room he had to lunge forward to save Darth from toppling over.
‘Herman! No! No, get out, go on!’ shouted Colin, literally spinning the rabbit on the wooden floor and pushing it firmly but gently back towards the door. After a short distance it raced away making a spectacular and triumphal leap as it hit the non-slip safety of the hall rug.
Colin shut the bedroom door firmly behind him and clapped the phone back to his ear, waving a mute but threatening finger at the unconcerned rabbit now lying, calmly taking five, on the hall carpet.
‘Sorry about that,’ said Colin, running a hand through his hair and struggling to get back on track.
‘Are you alright, sir?’
‘Oh, yes, yes, nothing to worry about. It was just Herman, my rabbit, she has a thing for my new flat-mate’s cardboard Darth Vader.’
‘Oh, no!’ gasped the girl. ‘Any damage?’
‘I don’t think so, at least, she was only hanging on to the stand part, at the back. But these things are expensive, and I have a horrible suspicion it’s an original.’
‘Oops,’ empathised Bernadine.
‘Exactly,’ laughed Colin.
‘I have rabbits too, fortunately no flat-mate so no drama. Fun, aren’t they?’
‘Really? That’s great! I mean, I don’t meet anyone, who, you know, has rabbits inside. I mean, indoors. Rabbits indoors. Everyone who finds out thinks I’m mad.’
‘Tell me about it, I more or less have an unofficial rabbit sanctuary,’ laughed Bernadine. ‘So, how did you end up with your house rabbit, then?’
‘Oh, we got her a year ago, my girlfriend saw one in a pet shop – impulse buy, you know.’
‘Really?’ came the less enthusiastic response.
Colin found he had a sudden burning need to add, ‘My EX-girlfriend, that is. And when she ‘exed’ she left Herman behind. There were no tears from either of them.’
‘Aw,’ said Bernadine with voluptuous sympathy.
‘And then I discovered that Herman was a Herwoman, but I didn’t change anything because by then she’d learnt her name.’
‘Of course, yes,’ affirmed the girl authoritatively.
Colin laughed, delighted, ‘Of course, of course!’
Bernadine giggled, confused, ‘“Of course of course”, what?’
‘Of course you’d say of course, because of course you know.’
‘Yes! Oh, good godfathers, do you know how many times I’ve told the ‘he to she’ and ‘not changing name story’, and you’re the first person ever to say, “of course”. Ever!’
Delighted to be special, Bernadine asked, ‘So, what does everyone else always say, then?’
‘They say: “But it’s a rabbit”.’
Bernadine laughed in recognition.
‘Hah!’ said Colin heartily. ‘I feel strangely relieved, like I finally met a kindred spirit. There should be support groups for misunderstood bunny owners.’
‘There probably are, in America…’
‘Oh, in America, for sure.’
There was a fraction of a second hesitation. ‘Maybe,’ ventured Colin, causally, ‘we should start our own. Wherever in the world you are, that is…’ He scratched the back of his neck and waited.
‘Oh, in Manchester,’ volunteered Bernadine in a flash.
‘Oh,’ Colin sounded happily surprised, that was practically up the road from his home town, ‘I thought for sure somewhere down south like Luton, or even India the way things are these days – can’t tell anything from the number. Manchester, eh?’
‘Yes,’ smiled the girl. She cleared her throat and a note of formality returned to her voice. ‘Anyway, sir, would you be kind enough to give me your customer information so we can log you call?’
Colin beamed, ‘I would be delighted and very grateful, Miss...?’
Colin proceeded to surrender his customer ID and wondered whether Miss Bynum would deign to call him out of office hours.
A few seconds into the process, Bernadine said, with a little worry in her voice which was not identifiable as corporate in origin, ‘Of course, we only have your mobile on record and it’s not presently possible to use that, as things stand.’
‘No,’ agreed Colin, frowning. Seized with sudden inspiration as he walked out into the hall he asked, ‘but before I go, what was the number to that bunny sanctuary you mentioned?’ He looked at Herman now sitting giving her face a good wash, ‘I may have a rabbit that needs re-homing…’
‘What?’ gasped Bernadine. ‘Surely not?’
Colin panicked, sensing his inspiration back-firing fast, ‘No, of course not, I’m joking!’
‘Oh, OK. But...um, well that’s a mobile number too, I’m afraid.’
There was a disappointed silence.
‘Well…’ continued Colin, playing for time then becoming inspired, ‘maybe I can give you my land-line number and you can ask the lady from the rabbit sanctuary to call me? Maybe?’
‘I’ll see what I can do, sir.’
Colin read her his house phone number and smiled.
‘Thank you for calling, sir, ooo, and um, here is the number for our updating service…’
Colin wrote it down, still grinning. ‘Thank you for your help, Miss Bynum, I look forward to using your dating service,’ and he hung up, rather pleased with his Freudian slip.
He was still grinning when his flat-mate returned from his night-shift at the Ramsgill Observatory.
‘Alright?’ he asked as Jim came into the living room and slumped onto the sofa.
Despite looking rough, there was also a shocked mania about his flat-mate, his blue eyes flashed and his close-cropped ginger-blond hair was ruffled.
‘Woah!’ said Colin.
Jim turned sparkling eyes to him, ‘Nothing is ever going to be the same again!’
‘Mate,’ said Colin, ‘do you guys smoke stuff over there or are you just on a blood sugar high? You’re acting weird. If we didn’t have family in common I’d be worried you were cracking up.’
Jim stood abruptly with a groan, ‘I’m going to try and sleep for a bit.’
With that he sloped away into his room and Colin hunched down in the armchair where he sat, waiting for the scream of indignant wrath – he had forgotten to stand Darth back in place. But nothing happened. Maybe he had straightened the figure after all, or maybe – worrying thought – Jim had seen it but didn’t care.
Unable to work, Colin turned to daytime TV with a clear conscience, and drifted away momentarily now and again, wondering what Bernadine “The Voice” Bynum looked like in person. He drifted back just as the male host of the TV magazine show was being informed by an ex-porn star that she was now campaigning against porn. This stunning revelation was interrupted by scheduled news, and the whole, ‘no internet in the north of the country story’ now went national. Satellite function and radio-waves were being affected, but the jury was still out as to the whys and wherefores.
Colin heaved himself out of the chair and padded through to the kitchen where he made himself a stack of cheese sandwiches, fed Herman a cabbage leaf when she mugged him at the fridge door, and thought no more about it.
Meanwhile, many miles across the barren hills, the serene sight of what appeared to be three giant golf balls resting in geological dimples, belied the organised chaos in corridors nestled below and beside them. Far from being a giant’s driving range, this was the country’s most sophisticated listening station, Windrop Hill - a Royal Air Force base that watched the skies all the way up to the Earth’s orbit and listened far beyond that.
Standing in the middle of the command centre, looking grim and holding a red telephone receiver to his ear, Air Chief Marshall Hackit had just given the Prime Minister a simplified update.
‘Yes, Ma’am,’ he confirmed grimly, ‘aliens.’